05 March, 2013

Chekhov's Pistol

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."  Anton Chekhov

This is the most common quote Creative Writing tutors use as an example of foreshadowing.  One tutor of mine took it to another level, just saying that it ought to go off by the last act.  That made a lot more sense, and was actually true.  Hannibal Lecter didn't need to have his true nature revealed in Act Two, for instance.

He was going deeper into the true meaning of the phrase, and I'd like to take the interpretation a step further, into the realms of psychology.

A lot of new authors, myself included back in the day, think Chekhov should be referring to something specific.  Not necessarily a pistol, of course.  That would be stupid.  But I did think he meant the stuff you introduce at the start better be the exact same stuff you use later.

"Pluto Nash," I thought.  (Sorry to swear.)  "I've read tonnes of awesome books that don't follow that rule.  Maybe he just meant mystery novels."

But, by Eddie Murphy's career (sorry again), I was wrong.

If foreshadowing only involves specific objects, it cannot persist throughout the narrative.  Your main character is not going to have the gun attached to his face.  Think of it more like a direction of things.  In the first scene of Greene's "Our Man in Havana", Wormold is sitting with his friend in a cafe.  I don't want any spoilers, here, so suffice to say Wormold sees some stuff, has a conversation and then leaves for a reason.  All of these elements set a tone, and establish the nature of the narrative.  Otherwise Greene wouldn't have put them there.  Vital characters are introduced and everything that comes later will make the first scene feel relevant.

For about a year after reaching this understanding, I went about being right in the wrong way.  I thought Chekhov was saying that the beginning had to justify the rest.  That's true, but I was thinking in terms of rationale.  That's not the playdough an artist moulds.

Chekhov's point proves that the pistol analogy makes sense.  I think he was using a weapon simply for emphasis.  The beginning should dramatise the rest.  Click-click bang in the reader's face.

Paul McAuley said to me, "Always refer back."  As always, the reasoning is far more important than the statement itself.  A reader starts with a natural expectation:  that your book is about something and that it will carry forwards.  The first indication of the story isn't even your first sentence.  It's the book's cover.  But your main job starts with the opening scene.  Demonstrate your book's "something" in dramatic fashion, and in every bit that follows, use the drama you've built.  If you find yourself naturally referring back, take it as a good sign.

Another misunderstanding of mine was that I used to think building the drama meant I had to mix things up, change things et cetera.  You have to understand that you start out having the reader's trust, and they're trusting everything they read to feel powerfully, evocatively relevant to what follows.  When a bad novel breaks that flow it isn't just disappointing, it's jarring.  There's a difference between screwing with your reader's head and artfully manipulating their trust.

Just remember that if there's a dancing monkey on the desk in the first act, the reader expects that monkey to empower all that follows.


Serafima Bogomolova said...

I think what Chekhov really was referring to is a theatrical 'prop'. He wrote plays and staged them in a theatre :-) Plays are divided into acts, and each act has props and background decorations that visually aid in telling the story. And of course, in the theatre you do not put any 'prop's unless they are needed or symbolize something, or have some meaning or use. Otherwise, they would distract attention of viewers. So, basically what he meant was do not litter the stage. They same applies in book writing, do not litter the book with characters and settings that have no meaning, symbolic or otherwise. I think it is pretty simple :-)

Wm. Luke Everest said...

That's a good comment, Serafima, but I'll offer a caveat. You're thinking in terms of specifics. You have to play with much subtler stuff to manipulate a reader psychologically. Symbolic relevance is not the same as tone.

Imagine the set of the first act in a play. Props on the table may have symbolic value, but what of the shape of the tables, colour of the carpet, the haircut of a background character? These things will be actively selected by the director not because of their overt value, but because they're establishing the nature of the world the characters inhabit. Equally, at the start of Our Man in Havana, the stuff Wormold sees places our man in Havana, and assists a stark picture of one of the novel's most important relationships, simply in that it provides a poignant context for their discussion.

Chekhov may have been talking about props, but my point was that the simplistic interpretation--that of specific objects--is not healthy for teaching aspirants about foreshadowing.